Monday, 21 August 2017

Washington Post Worldview/Adam Taylor: The radical ties that bind Barcelona and Charlottesville

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The Radical Ties That Bind Barcelona and Charlottesville

By Adam Taylor

On both sides of the Atlantic, there are urgent investigations into the radicalization of young men who have committed acts of politically inspired violence.

In Spain, people are seeking to understand the motivations of a dozen young men who plotted terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils that left 14 dead and scores more injured last week. Meanwhile, in the United States, police are looking into the background of 20-year-old Kentucky native James A. Fields Jr., who killed one woman and injured 19 others when he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters following a far-right rally in Charlottesville.

It would be a mistake to draw too neat a line between the two incidents, but any similarities between Islamist terrorists like those in Spain and white nationalists like Fields are worth examining for what they reveal about radicalization across the globe.

In the small Spanish town of Ripoll, The Washington Post's Souad Mekhennet and William Booth reported that the local community is itself wondering how its kids could have taken part in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. These were young men, they say, some barely old enough to drive. Eight or so of them were from Moroccan-immigrant backgrounds.

One local, the father of two men implicated in the attacks, described the older of his sons as a “problematic” child who fought in school, though he says he was more worried about drugs than religion. In hindsight, he told The Post, he believes his sons may have been radicalized by a local cleric.
Relatives of some of the suspects in Friday's terrorist attacks in Spain during a rally of the Muslim community in their hometown of Ripoll, Spain. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Relatives of some of the suspects in Friday's terrorist attacks in Spain during a rally of the Muslim community in their hometown of Ripoll, Spain. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Fields' background in Kentucky was the subject of another story by The Post's reporters, who again found hints of a troubled life: struggles with mental illness and multiple reports that Fields abused his disabled mother. “He looked like he was always lost,” one neighbor told my colleagues. “Always quiet and always alone.”

Teachers recall that Fields had a fixation on Hitler as far back as high school. In Charlottesville, he was photographed posing with members of Vanguard America, a self-proclaimed fascist group that recruits online. The group has denied that Fields was a member.

What ties these two incidents? Aside from the obvious practical parallel — the use of vehicles, a crude method of violence that's now a staple of Islamic State-inspired attacks — there are other important similarities.

While there's no “one-size-fits-all” for the type of person who ends up radicalized, isolated young men are clear and frequent targets, recruited by groups who offer excuses for the problems in their lives. Writing in the Guardian, longtime terrorism follower Jason Burke points to a number of similarities in the belief system of the Islamic State and America's far right — an overall “perverted sense of grievance.” Burke suggests that anger over the loss of the Islamic caliphate may echo the Lost Cause of the Confederacy for the far right — not in real historical terms, but “as a mythic symbol of betrayal, of conviction and of what might, indeed should, have been.”

Experts in the field also see parallels in different ideologies. “In some respects, it’s not that different from Islamist extremists,” said Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center to The Post's Terrence McCoy in an article about alt-right radicalization. In some cases the parallels can be painfully obvious: Earlier this year a former neo-Nazi who converted to Islam was arrested for allegedly killing his roommates after they disrespected his new faith.

In the public rhetoric of the Trump administration, there is no acknowledgment of these parallels. President Trump has been famously willing to point quickly to the motivations behind attacks inspired by the Islamic State or other Islamic militant groups — even when such beliefs don't end up being the reason for the attacks. In the case of Charlottesville, Trump and other Republican politicians focused instead on the actions of the so-called “violent left” rather than the motivations of the far-right.

While there's no doubt that radicalized members of the left have been responsible for political violence — there were plenty of deadly terrorist attacks by left-wing groups in postwar Europe — the evidence suggests they're no longer as dangerous as they once were: Alex Nowresteh, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, has found that right-wing terrorists have killed 10 times as many people on U.S. soil as left-wing groups since 1992.

Nowresteh's research also shows that Islamic militant-inspired terrorism was deadliest in the U.S., killing 14 times the number of people as right-wing plots had in the same period. But things may change: Jonathan Evans, the former head of British spy agency MI5, recently suggested that Islamist extremists might only pose a terror threat for another 20 to 30 years. Responding to these comments, Raffaello Pantucci of London's Royal United Services Institute warned in the Financial Times that “once we have dealt with that strain of the virus, it will simply morph into a new form.”

This is why its so important to look through the personal histories of attackers in Spain and Fields in Kentucky along with others of their ilk. The threat of violence posed by the Islamic State or far-right groups specifically will eventually dissipate, or morph into some other cause. It's the threat posed by radicalized young men in general — and our present difficulties in stopping them from becoming extremists — that should worry us in the long term.

• Suave 39-year-old French president Emmanuel Macron has made trolling President Trump one of his key responsibilities since taking office in May. But he has one thing in common with his American counterpart: His approval ratings stink.

The Post’s James McAuley reports from Paris on Macron’s ever-lower poll numbers, which have descended to the Trumpian level of 36 percent approval in one poll. What’s going wrong for the boy wonder? Among the reasons given are the inexperience of Macron’s party members and his conflict with the French military over spending cuts. But the biggest issue may be Macron’s own personality:

"In three months in power, the new head of state has been reluctant to grant interviews, preferring to deliver lengthy orations in the halls of Versailles, France’s historic seat of absolute monarchy, and such regal optics have not played well with the media or the public. Macron is more unpopular at the three-month point of his first term than any of his immediate predecessors — François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac — were at the same point, according to Ifop, the Paris-based polling firm."

• British authorities are looking for ways to stop the “malicious” use of rented vehicles, Reuters reports. It’s an intriguing response to the growing use of vehicles in attacks carried out by the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Another tactic being used in Britain and elsewhere is the installation of barriers and other obstacles that would stop vehicles being driven into pedestrians.

• CNN reports that suspected sonic attacks against diplomats in Cuba hit more people than previously reported. U.S. officials told Patrick Oppmann and Elise Labott that more than 10 U.S. diplomats and family members have received treatment after "months of harassing attacks."

This strange situation first came to light earlier this month when two Cuban diplomats were expelled from the United States in response. So far, the State Department has stopped short of publicly accusing the Cuban government of involvement, and there are suspicions that the suspected attacks could have been ordered by a rogue element in Cuba’s state security — or even a third party.

• Writing for Middle East Eye, Kamal Alam of London-based defense think tank RUSI argues that China is taking on an increasingly significant role behind the scenes in Syria — including sending troops to train the Syrian army. The intervention appears to be largely driven by security concerns related to Chinese Uighurs, members of a Muslim ethnic minority that lives in China's northwest, fighting in Syria. But Beijing has been able to exploit the ongoing split between Russia and U.S. interests in the conflict to drive its own agenda.

"In Syria, China has not just simply watched the Russian and US tug of war, it has cultivated its own path by avoiding military confrontation, instead focusing on consolidation and quiet, behind-the-scenes action,” observes Alam.

• Remember the ongoing border drama between India, China and Bhutan that The Post’s Annie Gowen and Simon Denyer wrote about last week? Remarkable video of one skirmish appeared over the weekend, showing troops from the two nuclear powers throwing stones and shoving each other. De-escalation, it seems, is still not in the cards for now.

An Afghan soldier at a military base in the Khakriz district of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 26. (Muhammad Sadiq/European Pressphoto Agency)</p>

An Afghan soldier at a military base in the Khakriz district of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 26. (Muhammad Sadiq/European Pressphoto Agency)

Decision time

Aboard a military plane on Sunday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that President Trump had reached a decision on a new, anxiously awaited Afghanistan war strategy. The reported move to deploy several thousand more troops was reached at a strategy meeting at Camp David on Friday involving Trump and more than a dozen aides, and Trump will address the nation about it this evening.

The administration had delayed the decision for months as the White House’s hawks and isolationists fought with other over the proper course. That the decisive meeting happened on Friday, the same day chief strategist Steve Bannon resigned his job, may not be a coincidence. Bannon was the White House's loudest opponent of a troop increase, a move Mattis and the military’s top general have been advocating — and of which Trump appeared skeptical.

There are roughly 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now, down from a high of over 100,000 at the height of the Obama-era surge. The increase in numbers being proposed is modest — perhaps 4,000 or so servicemembers — but the majority would join the effort to train and advise Afghan troops. The line between advising and combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has often been blurry at best.

The war in Afghanistan is already the longest-running conflict in American history. But after sixteen years, with $700 billion spent and many thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan remains as unstable as ever. Both the Taliban and the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan launch regular attacks on major cities and military outposts. The Taliban operates in more than half of the country’s districts. 

If Trump’s decision is to concede to his generals’ wishes, it may prove difficult for him to sell increased spending on the war to a base that elected him to put "America First." But many Afghans will breathe a sigh of relief on hearing that Trump has finally decided something — especially if he's backing a troop increase.

“These delays are not just a matter of bureaucracy. They are a matter of life and death to the Afghan people,” said Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, to our Kabul bureau chief earlier this month. The Taliban insurgents, he said, are trying to "influence the debate in Washington with these new attacks. The longer these delays continue, the more innocent lives will be lost." — Max Bearak


Iranian policemen evacuate a child from the parliament building in Tehran on June 7 during an attack claimed by the Islamic State. (Omid Vahabzadeh/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)</p>

Iranian policemen evacuate a child from the parliament building in Tehran on June 7 during an attack claimed by the Islamic State. (Omid Vahabzadeh/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The big question

Iranian authorities recently said they arrested more than two dozen people who planned to bomb religious sites with smuggled explosives. The Islamic State then released a video in which a Farsi-speaking militant threatened to cut the necks of Iran’s majority Shiites, whom the group regards as apostates. It's part of a ramped-up effort to recruit new members for the Islamic State's extreme vision of Sunni Islam in the world's biggest and most powerful Shiite country. So we asked Post Istanbul correspondent Erin Cunningham: Why are some of Iran's Sunnis open to recruitment by the Islamic State?

"Iran’s Sunnis come mostly from two of the country’s largest ethnic minorities: the Kurds in the west near Iraq, and the Baloch, who live along the Pakistan border in the southeast. The Iranian Islamic State recruits who have been identified so far have also come mostly from those two communities.

"Both the Kurds and Baloch have been engaged in protracted struggles with the Iranian state for autonomy or just greater recognition of their rights. Human rights groups say discrimination against Kurds and Baloch is widespread, and the regions where the Baloch are the majority are the most underdeveloped in Iran.

"So in both places there was already a history of violence and a general sense of persecution by a government that was (and is) essentially a Shiite theocracy. Then came the rise of ultra-conservative strains of Islam in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Those eventually found adherents in Iran in communities where socio-economic conditions were less than ideal.

"Porous borders also meant people were easily exposed to militancy in neighboring countries. For Kurdish recruits, it has been relatively simple to access the Islamic State given the proximity of some of its strongholds to the Iranian border, as well as jihadist supply routes established during the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Baloch separatists, who have established their own armed jihadist groups, are also believed to have cross-border links with militants in Afghanistan.

"The worry now is not just that one of those groups might agree to become an Islamic State affiliate, but also that it may give ISIS fighters sanctuary as the noose tightens on them elsewhere."


The U.S.' relationships with Russia and China are certainly two of its most vital right now. The National Interest wonders how things could be repaired with Moscow, while The Post says things are deifnitely about to change with Beijing now that Steve Bannon is out in the White House. In other relationship changes, we've talked a lot about the pitfalls of the NAFTA renegotation, so the Atlantic looks at how things could go right. And the New York Times has a fascinating piece by a former white supremacist about what that movement gets right about history — and how it was helped last week by President Trump.
         
Getting America and Russia back to normal
Putin and his entourage, the Trump administration, and the U.S. Congress have a large choice to make.
By Robert Legvold | The National Interest  •  Read more »
         
Bannon’s departure has huge implications for the U.S.-China relationship
Bannon wanted to reorient U.S. grand strategy on China, but now those who want the status quo may prevail.
By Josh Rogin | The Washington Post  •  Read more »
         
What would a better NAFTA look like?
As renegotiations on the trade deal begin, some scholars are calling for a rethinking of how such agreements work.
By Alana Semuels | The Atlantic  •  Read more »
         
What white nationalism gets right about American history
Growing up in this community, I learned about a past that’s more present than most will admit.
By R. Derek Black | The New York Times  •  Read more »

   
   


Steve Bannon, no longer chief strategist for the White House, is back at the helm of Breitbart, a publication he once described as "the platform for the alt-right.” But Harper’s reports that the movement’s survival hinges on something else entirely: women. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times exposes a local energy utility’s deadly negligence, while Bloomberg maps America’s new Tornado Alley.
         
The rise of the Valkyries
In the alt-right, women are the future, and the problem.
By Seyward Darby | Harper's Magazine  •  Read more »
         
Hellfire from above
Tampa Electric knew the procedure was dangerous. It sent workers in anyway.
By Neil Bedi, Jonathan Capriel, Anastasia Dawson and Kathleen Mcgrory | The Tampa Bay Times  •  Read more »
         
A new tornado alley is forming in America’s Southeast
A swath of states from Louisiana to Georgia is experiencing an expensive surge in destruction caused by tornadoes.
By Daniel Levitt | Bloomberg  •  Read more »


In the U.S., it's easy to get a shared taxi ride. In China, it's easy to share almost anything, including these umbrellas in Shanghai. The sharing economy has recently exploded in China, with venture capital fueling sharing services for basketballs, washing machines, and even mini-gym workout pods. And while the money is flowing and at least one company has earned plaudits in state media this year, there have also been setbacks: Sharing E Umbrella announced in June that almost all of its 300,000 umbrellas had been stolen. (Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

   
   
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